Add this to the New Year’s barrel of political myths: Limiting access to sugary drinks for families receiving public assistance is an attack on poor people.
A new poll released this month reveals that, at least in California, public assistance recipients, themselves, want to put an end to the “junk drink” health crisis that’s threatening the health of millions of families in California and across the nation.
California Food Policy Advocates surveyed more than 600 families enrolled in or likely eligible to be enrolled in CalFresh, the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Of those surveyed, almost 70 percent supported efforts to reduce access to junk drinks; 60 percent backed efforts to make milk, juice and water the only beverages that CalFresh participants can purchase.
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This is good news. It shows once again that no matter the income level, there’s broad public acknowledgment that junk drinks do nothing but add hundreds of empty calories to our diets, helping drive the skyrocketing obesity and diabetes epidemics in the United States.
Diabetes rates have tripled since the mid-1980s to the point where 40 percent of Americans will become diabetic during their lifetimes, and nearly 1 in 3 children born in this century will get the disease at some point. That figure rises to as many as 1 in 2 among children of color.
With teenagers getting almost one out of every 10 calories from junk drinks, the most sensible place to start reversing this situation is by ending the federal and state subsidy of the diabetes crisis. Americans can’t be denied the right to choose to drink a junk drink, but there’s no reason why taxpayers should be paying for it.
Now, that brings us back to the original myth. Those who say that it’s unfair to target families receiving federal and state food assistance make an important point. In fact, that’s why we’ve called for the federal government to impose the same limits on federal officials at all levels who buy beverages as part of travel expenses.
It’s pretty simple: Federal and state funds should not be used to subsidize an epidemic that is making millions of men, women and children sick with diabetes and other illnesses.
The poll released this month is simply more proof that the opponents of limiting access to junk drinks – primarily Big Soda – are running out of arguments. That’s fortuitous, since our health care system is running out of time and resources.
Since CalFresh plays such an important role in helping struggling families stay healthy, any changes to the program should be tested and evaluated first. A California county, in partnership with the state and the federal government, could take this on. One idea would be to test restrictions on junk drinks and pair them with incentives for healthy eating.
There’s one thing we don’t need a pilot program to tell us: CalFresh recipients are ahead of policymakers on this one. They know it’s time to take junk drinks out of the food assistance equation and out of the stomachs of our children.
Daniel Zingale is a senior vice president of the California Endowment.